Although written as a French novel in the shadow of World War I, “War of the Buttons” has the sort of timeless concept that makes it flexible enough to serve in different periods and places.
Thus the story might be (and was) set in Ireland in the 1990s in the midst of the Catholic-Protestant troubles. And it might, as in a new French version, be set during World War II, against the backdrop of secret Resistance efforts in neighboring small towns.
In this version, the towns are nominally occupied by the Germans, but the children there are busy living like kids. They’ve staked out the turf between the tiny villages and declared that no boy from either village shall set foot upon the ground claimed by the other.
The clashes that follow are played out as mostly comical battles (nothing much seems at stake in these encounters), and victory is claimed by the collecting of the opposing army’s buttons.
We get the lesson about the pointlessness of warfare early on, but there’s more. A local seamstress (Laetitia Casta) has brought a “godchild” back from Paris, a girl who is a Jewish escapee from the Nazis. The girl is just the right age to be noticed by the lead warrior (Jean Texier) in town, a courageous but feckless lad.
You can’t blame the kid for his acting out, because his role models aren’t showing much bravery. Neither his father (Kad Merad, late of “The Well-Digger’s Daughter”) nor his schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet) has displayed any backbone in dealing with the German occupation.
This concept demands a careful treatment, lest it tip over into getting overly precious and cutesy. Director Christophe Barratier has not been careful.
Barratier has taken this opportunity to show just how gosh-darned adorable these children can be, even with the world falling down around them, while taking great pains to make sure we notice how capable of wisdom the tykes are, too. Meanwhile, he pours on the hard-working musical score like syrup on already-sweetened waffles. Or crepes, as the case may be.
This director pulled the same cloying shenanigans in “Les Choristes” and “Paris 36,” but it seems worse here because of the wartime backdrop. Ultimately everything is played for its wonderfulness, which doesn’t seem very wonderful after a while. Only the child actors come out unscathed.
Oddly, this is one of two films based on the novel “War of the Buttons” released in France last year. Given that fact, it seems unlikely we’ll get the other version released in the states anytime soon, which sounds just fine at this point.
“War of the Buttons” (1½ stars)
A too-cute version of an antiwar novel, about boys in neighboring towns who carry on battles. This version’s set during World War II in occupied France, and it has too many overly precious moments (and way too much syrupy music) to really work. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, subject matter.